Jurisprudence

California’s Carelessness Spurred a New COVID Outbreak

A view of San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, on June 29. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Megan Cassidy is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. For the past couple of years, she’s made herself an expert on life inside California’s prisons, especially the state’s oldest one, San Quentin. Guards, inmates, relatives of people inside—they all seem to know how to reach her. So about a month ago, she heard about a few dozen new inmates who were transferred to San Quentin from a prison seven hours south, an effort coordinated by the state of California’s justice system. Cassidy’s contacts started hearing coughing. Then they started getting sick. The coronavirus was thus seeded there by state officials who either didn’t know enough or didn’t care, allowing their transfer decision to spread the virus. Now those same officials have to figure out whether they can make things right.

On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Cassidy about how California’s mistakes created its newest COVID hot spot. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: How many inmates are there at San Quentin?
 
Megan Cassidy: There are about 3,500 right now.

And how many of them have tested positive at this point? 

I think about 1,400. So about 1 in 3.

Once you have that many people testing positive, is it even possible to control the outbreak?

No, I mean, not in a place like San Quentin.

California’s prison system is extremely overcrowded, right?

Right. It would take about 20,000-odd prisoners to be released just to be at 100 percent capacity throughout the system.

Pre-coronavirus?

Right.

The Supreme Court has ordered California to fix its overcrowded prison facilities—it actually ruled that the conditions there are “cruel and unusual.” A federal judge, Jon Tigar, is now overseeing the system’s efforts. Early on, advocates told Tigar that one way to protect inmates was to simply release them, to get them out of these struggling facilities. Instead, when there was an outbreak at a men’s prison in Chino in San Bernardino, the state decided to move prisoners around. That’s how this latest outbreak started.

It seemed to me like this transfer decision was, OK, the writing’s on the wall. We have to get some of these medically vulnerable people out of this prison before they get hit. So the decision was made to take close to 700 incarcerated people from the Chino prison to other facilities.

And the idea was that by transferring them, they’d reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Exactly.

More than 100 inmates from Chino were slated to go to San Quentin, where there were no reported cases of COVID-19.  So these men get on buses to go to San Quentin. Were they attempting to socially distance on the buses? Was there any kind of special way they were processed once they got to San Quentin?

From what has been told to me, there’s not really much of a way to social distance on the bus. They were given face masks. But, you know, the bus driver is there too. There’s a handful of guards on there as well. And then when they were offloaded, that’s when people at San Quentin started seeing that something was really wrong here.

When your sources inside the prison began calling you a month ago, what were they saying? What were they telling you about what they were sensing?

Right after that transfer, I started getting some calls from not only the people inside but also from some of my sources who are staffers there. Once the transfers came, it was obvious that a handful of them were already sick, visibly ill, coughing. Purportedly they had tested negative before they’d gotten on the buses. But what my colleague Jason Fagone and I found out was that, yes, they’d been tested previously, but in some cases the testing was done up to a month earlier. And what no one knew at that time was that 25 of those men tested positive as soon as they got to San Quentin. It was a really botched move.

Did you tell the people you were talking to what you knew about the virus?

Oh, of course. What I found the saddest was that I had more information, being on the outside, than some of the incarcerated people had. And Fagone and I got several emails, several calls, Twitter messages, any way to get a hold of us, from worried wives and mothers and children. Everybody has a different story. Somebody will say, My nephew or my kid has some sort of a medical issue and they’re still housing them in the gym. And there’s no social distancing there. More recently, it’s something like, I’ve tested positive. And the person I live in the cell with works in the kitchen. I’m worried that now he’s going to spread my virus to other people. 

A lot of people were worried that some men at San Quentin were going to be transferred to North Kern, another prison near Bakersfield. Because of prison politics, there’s this perception that San Quentin is what’s called a “special needs” yard. So people who are snitches, who helped out police, or who have an unfavorable crime conviction, like a sexual assault—they may get immediately assaulted if they go to North Kern.

Like it’s just understood that if you go to this prison, that’s what’s going to happen.

Yeah, you’ll be assaulted on arrival. I got a lot of calls about that: I fear for my life if I’m transferred to another facility. So a lot of people didn’t want to be tested for that reason—that if they tested negative, they would be transferred.

My understanding about this current outbreak is that it began in a single unit, the Badger unit. Can you explain exactly what happened there?

When the men were transferred to San Quentin, they were offloaded and immediately tested. The ones who were exhibiting symptoms were isolated. The ones who were just exposed were quarantined in Badger. So that’s where the bulk of these 121 men went.

What does isolation or quarantine look like in a place like San Quentin?

Isolation is in the adjustment center. So it’s—

Solitary confinement. 

Yes. That’s another reason a lot of people, at least in the beginning, didn’t want to be tested, because if you test positive, you’re essentially being punished for it. You’re thrown in the hole or you have whatever few rights that you can cling to—phone privileges, visiting the canteen, yard time—taken away from you.

So quarantining at Badger doesn’t mean real separation.  

Badger is more general population housing. There are five floors—they call them tiers, stacked on top of one another. So basically, the air mixes, the droplets mix, they fall onto the lower tiers.

And the men from Chino are put on the top tier, right?

Right on the top two tiers.

So you can see how you cough and a droplet escapes, and it just falls down past all these other open cells.

Right.

Did it just sound like coughing day in and day out to the people who were there?

Yes. And then what I’m hearing now is it’s just “man down” every few minutes. Five people have died since the coronavirus hit. At least three of the deaths were definitely due to the coronavirus, and my sources inside say that the other two are likely that as well.

When you asked the prison about the idea of putting prisoners who’d been exposed to the coronavirus on top of other prisoners without any way of closing people off from each other, what did they say to you?

All I was told is that the men from Chino were quarantined separately from the general population, that those who have tested positive, are exhibiting symptoms, are isolated.

That sounds like a lie. 

It’s at the very least misleading. I think you could argue that it’s a lie. They’re not double-bunking with the general population, but you could yell to somebody and they could hear you easily. It’s all in the same unit.

So when you see this number reported, that more than 1,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus at San Quentin, do you think it’s way more than that? 

For sure.

You got these reports in early June that people were worried, and then gradually it sounds like you noticed more and more people becoming sick. And the reports became undeniable. I’m curious how advocates for prisoners are trying to change things on the inside, maybe push for changes they couldn’t get a few months back when they were originally advocating for a large-scale release.

The one thing that the prison could do to curb this spread is a widespread release. And actually, Tigar has said in the past that he’s not sure that he has the power to do it, but he’s indicated more and more frequently that the prison should just do the release on its own.

You reported on a letter that was sent to the state by health researchers looking at what’s happening at San Quentin and warning that this won’t stay inside the prison. It’s been weeks now and not a lot has changed, except more and more people have gotten sick. I wonder how the area around the prison is preparing for whatever happens now.

They’re setting up essentially a hospital on the prison grounds. They’ve set up like an emergency incident command center at the prison, which is something that the unions have called for. The staff are happy about that.

But what we’ve heard is there are about 10 incarcerated people sent to hospitals every day now. So there is a fear that this is going to start to overwhelm the community health system at a time we’re starting to see spikes elsewhere as well.

And of course, there are people inside the prison system who don’t stay there, the guards and other people who are going out into the community. Is there evidence that that’s increasing local spread too?

I wouldn’t be able to speak to that, but I think it would be safe to say there are now over 100 staffers at San Quentin who have tested positive. So, yes, clearly they’re going home to their families and back out to the community.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.